Arnie Robinson in 1977
Arnie Robinson is congratulated June 13, 1977, after winning the AAU national championships at UCLA with a best-in-the-world jump that year of 27-0 1/2. Photo via Los Angeles Public Library

San Diego’s Arnie Robinson — an Olympic long jump champion and member of the sport’s Hall of Fame — died Tuesday morning and was being remembered as an icon of the sport.

Robinson, who was 72, had battled a brain tumor since 2005, said The San Diego Union-Tribune, which first reported his passing, citing the track and field great’s son Paul.

A survivor of a near-fatal collision with a drunken driver in 2000, Robinson won gold at the 1976 Montreal Games (with his personal record 27 feet 4 3/4 inches) after taking bronze four years earlier in Munich.

Arnie Robinson (standing, second from right) attended a 1974 coaching clinic put on by Patty Van Wolvelaere and Tracy Sundlun at MiraCosta College. Also pictured are (kneeling) Van Wolvelaere and high jumper Dwight Stones. Standing from left are sprinter Steve Williams, discus thrower John Powell, pole vaulter Steve Smith, distance runner Francie Larrieu, 400 hurdler Wes Williams, high jumper Cindy Gilbert, 110 hurdler Tommy Lee White and, after Robinson, shot putter Al Feuerbach.
Arnie Robinson (standing, second from right) attended a 1974 coaching clinic put on by Patty Van Wolvelaere and Tracy Sundlun at MiraCosta College. Also pictured are (kneeling) Van Wolvelaere and high jumper Dwight Stones. Standing from left are sprinter Steve Williams, discus thrower John Powell, pole vaulter Steve Smith, distance runner Francie Larrieu, 400 hurdler Wes Williams, high jumper Cindy Gilbert, 110 hurdler Tommy Lee White and, after Robinson, shot putter Al Feuerbach. Photo via Tracy Sundlun

The Paradise Hills resident went to Morse High School and San Diego Mesa College before San Diego State University, where in 1988 he was part of the 16-member inaugural class of the Aztec Athletic Hall of Fame. He also coached at Mesa College.

Olympian Willie Banks, former world record holder in the triple jump and current member of the World Athletics governing council, told Times of San Diego that when he was growing up in Oceanside, he had few heroes.

“Arnie Robinson was one of those heroes,” he said. “As a jumper, I was in awe of his talent. When I grew up and finally met Arnie, I was stunned at how humble and warm he was. I truly understood why he was so admired by all the other athletes. To lose a man like Arnie is to lose an icon. My heart is broken and I will truly miss him.”

Fellow coach Paul Greer, president of the San Diego USATF association, said: “It was my wonderful pleasure and privilege to know the great Arnie Robinson and a true icon in the sport of track and field.”

Greer said his earliest memories of Robinson date back 30 years ago, when he learned he kept his Olympic medals in the back of his car.

“When I inquired why there, he simply said: ‘If any young person asks to see my gold medal, it was easily accessible.’”

San Diego-born Robinson was the “most giving, modest and kindest individual who made a tremendous difference in this life and with everyone he touched,” Greer said. “Arnie Robinson is a true legend and will be sorely missed and his contributions to our community as an exceptional athlete, a coach and youth leader will live on for generations to come.”

In 1972, Santee’s Tracy Sundlun was an assistant track coach for the Puerto Rican Olympics team.

He said he first met Robinson that year when he was a suite-mate of his at the Munich Olympics.

“From that moment, Arnie held an exalted place in my life,” Sundlun said. “A truly special man of great character, who gave much more than he received. An ideal role model for anyone who knew him, and someone who I never heard complain after his accident and throughout his subsequent health issues.”

He called Robinson’s death “a true gut-punch, which brought tears to my eyes. He will be so missed by so many.”

The U-T quoted fellow Morse graduate Monique Henderson, a two-time gold medalist in the 4×400-meter relay.

“I had no idea who the man was or what his accomplishments were,” Henderson told the U-T in 2018. “I just knew this man was making our meets as professional as he could. … He didn’t have anybody assisting him. You go to a track meet now and there are five guys in a tent running the timing system. It was just Arnie. The time he spent learning the system, it’s unbelievable.

“And Arnie didn’t charge any of the youth organizations a dime.”

Four-time Olympic long jump champion Carl Lewis said in a tribute tweet: “He was such an influence on me and I will never forget his help and support.”

Robinson was inducted into San Diego’s Breitbard Hall of Fame in 1985, the USA Track and Field Hall of Fame in 2000, and the California Community College Cross Country and Track Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2005.

He was head track and field coach at Mesa for 23 years, served as USATF national Youth Committee chairman from 1994 and 2004, and was the San Diego USATF association’s vice president from 1997 to 2007.

Longtime U-T sports columnist Nick Canepa tweeted: “Arnie Robinson, great Olympic champion, tremendous person, one of San Diego’s all-timers. RIP”

Arnie Paul Robinson Jr. lived in San Diego throughout his career, winning the 1970 NCAA men’s outdoor long jump title with a leap of 25-10½. The following year he won his first USA outdoor title with a wind-aided 26-10 3⁄4, qualifying him for the 1971 Pan American Games, where he won the gold medal with 26-3¾.

In 1972, he again won the USA Championships, representing the U.S. Army, in 26-5 1⁄2. That year he also won the Olympic Trials long jump with a mark of 26-4 1⁄2. He was third in the Munich Olympics in 26-4, behind youngster Randy Williams who set the world junior record in the long jump of 27–4½, a record that stood until 2012.

Starting in 1975, Robinson went on to win four straight USA Outdoor championships. The 1975 championship qualified Robinson to again go to the Pan Am Games, where he won the silver medal in 25-4½.

In 1976, he bested Williams in both the Olympic Trials and the Olympics, taking home the gold medal with his 27-4¾. In 1977, his national championship win qualified him to go to the first  World Cup meet in Düsseldorf, Germany, where he again took home gold in 26-10¼.

In 1982, he began coaching at Mesa College and served as a professor in health and exercise science until his retirement. His 1998 women’s team won the California Community College state championship.

Robinson retired from coaching and teaching in 2010. On April 13, 2013, San Diego Mesa College honored the Olympian by naming its premier high school and college invitational meet The Arnie Robinson Invitational.

Robinson also served as USATF San Diego-Imperial Youth Track and Field chair for a number of years and mentored thousands of youth athletes over the years.

“Arnie Robinson is a true legend where he will be remembered for always placing his student athletes first and being a wonderful ambassador for the sport of track and field,” Greer said.

Don Franken, who succeeded his father Al as a track meet promoter (including elite indoor meets at the San Diego Sports Arena) said he and Al had great memories of Robinson competing in their events.

“We had a great friendship with Arnie,” Don Franken said. “He was always there for us to support our track meets. He helped do PR appearances at press conferences. He did timing for our track meets.”

Robinson, he added, loved the sport and always gave back.

“He was a warm giving man that was loved by everyone in the sport,” he said. “He was a great talent and a tough competitor. He was humble, low-key but so strong and such a leader at the same time.”

When he informed his dad about the death, Al Franken, 95, was in shock, the son said.

“We are both very sad about this,” he said via Facebook. “But our loss is nothing compared to the loss to the sport with Arnie Robinson’s death. He was an icon in the sport’s history.”

Ramona Pagel, a four-time Olympian and former American record-holder in the shot put, knew Robinson from her coaching days at Mesa College.

“I remember asking Arnie why he still lived in SE San Diego, and he said that he wanted to show the kids there that they could succeed coming from the neighborhood,” she said.

Kent Pagel, Ramona’s husband, coached at Mesa from 1985 to 1995.

“In over 50 years of experience in sport, I have not encountered a finer person in track or any sport,” he said. “His respect and love for his athletes was unmatched, proved by his daily morning arrival at SDM with ‘the Arnie Squad’ of student-athletes whom he transported from Southeast San Diego to Mesa every day.”

Kent said Robinson knew many of those students would not be attending without his time, encouragement and even transportation on a daily basis.

“There were no lost causes to Arnie, no forgotten bodies,” he said. “Everyone was someone whom he could point or even occasionally shove in the right direction in life.”

Robinson would have made the 1980 Olympic team and perhaps medal except for an injury and the specter of the U.S. boycott of those Moscow Games, Kent says.

“So he turned his energies to coaching and helping young athletes, not just in sport, but in life as well,” he said.

“Everyone respected Arnie, from administrators at SDM to the bangers in Southeast who knew better than to mess with anything remotely related to Arnie. There were just so many that owed so much to him.”

After the Pagels left San Diego to work at other NCAA schools, they says his message remained strong.

“Through his tragic car accident and health problems, he remained Arnie,” Kent said. “He was the one who deserved to be looked up at as a role model for athlete, coach and person. And even though he is now no longer with us, that is the legacy he hopefully left us.”

Updated at 1:12 p.m. Dec. 4, 2020